T-Mobile Integrates Voice, HotSpot Billing

By Thor Olavsrud

May 08, 2003

Nearly 18 months after T-Mobile (formerly VoiceStream Wireless) picked up wireless hotspot firm MobileStar, the company is getting around to providing unified billing.

Ever since its VoiceStream Wireless subsidiary acquired wireless hotspot firm MobileStar in November 2001, Germany's Deutsche Telekom has envisioned an integrated Wi-Fi and GPRS offering with unified billing. Nearly 18 months after the acquisition -- and following VoiceStream's rebranding as T-Mobile -- the company is taking its first steps in that direction.

The company said Thursday that its customers will now be able to get a unified bill, with the T-Mobile HotSpot service included in their monthly wireless voice and data bills.

As part of the package, T-Mobile introduced a special rate for customers who sign on for both its wireless voice/data and Wi-Fi services. Those customers will be able to add the T-Mobile HotSpot service to their existing monthly bill at a rate of $19.99 for unlimited access -- giving them the ability to use Wi-Fi enabled laptops or PDAs to get a broadband wireless Internet connection at any of T-Mobile's 2,300 HotSpots nationwide.

T-Mobile spokesman Bryan Zidar said the company is also extending the special rate to its existing base of 10 million users, if they choose to add T-Mobile HotSpots to their wireless phone accounts.

The company's stand-alone HotSpot service on a subscription (at the standard $29.99 a month rate) and pay-as-you-go basis will also continue.

Getting It Right
Still, even as the company begins to roll out unified billing, getting it right will be essential because consumers continue to complain about billing problems and service-related runarounds from T-Mobile and the wireless industry as a whole, according to PlanetFeedback, a consumer intelligence and feedback services firm in Cincinnati.

According to PlanetFeedback, an analysis of nearly 18,000 letters sent to wireless companies since early 2000 shows that 80 percent involved complaints, with more than half involving billing/payment and customer service problems. The analysis cited MCI WorldCom as the worst offender, with 81 percent of all complaints related to billing and service issues, followed by Sprint PCS and Nextel (both at 63 percent).

PlanetFeeback's Sue MacDonald told internetnews.com that of the 1,900 letters directed to T-Mobile over the past three years that it analyzed, 1,546 were complaints, with about 30 percent related to billing and 30 percent related to customer service.

She noted that consumers do tend to be more motivated to write to the companies when they have complaints, but added that wireless firms have consistently had one of the highest complaint rates over the past three years.

"As an average, probably 70 percent of all the feedback collected on our site is complaints," she said. "About 70 percent is average. Some industries have really fluctuated over the past three years, but the wireless industry has not. The issues that people have been complaining about haven't changed either."

The most common billing problems include overcharges, fees that are higher than promised at contract signing, problems getting refunds or credits, unexpected roaming fees, and difficulties with contested bills being reported to credit-reporting or collection agencies. PlanetFeedback said service-related problems run the gamut from dropped calls and lack of coverage to waiting on hold for long periods with customer-service support lines.

"Ad campaigns are pushing 'Can You Hear Me Now?' messages and unlimited calling features, but consumers are throwing back the same question -- 'Is Anyone Listening?' -- at wireless companies' customer service departments," said Pete Blackshaw, PlanetFeedback's chief marketing and client satisfaction officer. "Moreover, the wireless industry tops all others in negative word-of-mouth behavior, including instances when consumers feel the urge to notify elected officials of bad experiences. This carries a real cost and puts a premium on wireless companies getting it right."

Integrated Service
Once T-Mobile gets unified billing in place, the attention is likely to turn to its efforts to unify its GPRS network and Wi-Fi HotSpots with seamless roaming. T-Mobile took the first steps toward that goal in March, when it used the CTIA Wireless 2003 show as a platform to announce a partnership with Boingo Wireless, under which Boingo would help the firm tie its GPRS 2.5G data network and Wi-Fi hotspots together.

Boingo was brought in to supply its Boingo Platform Services, and the two firms laid plans to co-develop the product to help users manage their connections between T-Mobile's Wi-Fi and GPRS networks. The joint platform is intended to allow customers to designate their network preferences or choose to get connected at the best available network speed, with the software automatically connecting them to the networks of their choice.



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